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John Paton, Apostle of the New Hebrides

by John C. Lambert

John PatonOf all the many island clusters of the South Pacific there is none, perhaps, which has so good a claim as the New Hebrides to be regarded as classic ground in the history of Christian missions. It was on Erromanga, one of this group, that John Williams, the greatest of all the missionaries of Oceania, the "Apostle of the South Seas," as he has justly been called, fell in death under the club of a fierce cannibal. And it was on Tanna, an adjacent island, that the veteran Dr. John G. Paton, a man not less apostolic than John Williams, began a career so full of intrepid action and hairbreadth escape, of thrilling adventure and extraordinary romance, mingled at times with dreadful tragedy, that more almost than any other in the missionary annals of modern times it serves to illustrate the saying, "Truth is stranger than fiction."

First Night on Tanna

It is nearly fifty years [written in 1907] since Dr. Paton was sent out by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland to begin his life-work among the cannibals of the New Hebrides. Tanna was the island chosen for his sphere, an island hitherto untouched by Christianity; and the Tannese were among the most ferocious savages of those southern seas.

When he landed, war was afoot between an inland tribe and a tribe of the shore. He tells how, on the very first night that he spent on Tanna, five or six men who had been killed in the fighting were cooked and eaten at a neighbouring spring, so that next morning, when he wanted some water to make tea for his breakfast, the spring was so polluted with blood that it could not be used. On the second evening the quiet of the night was broken by a sound more blood-curdling even than the howls of infuriated warriors—"a wild, wailing cry from the villages around, long-continued and unearthly." It told of the strangling of the widow, that she might accompany her dead husband into the other world and be his servant there as she had been here.

A Lonely Grave

At first Mr. Paton had the companionship of his brave young wife amidst the trials and perils which had daily to be faced. But in a few months she was cut off by fever, together with the little son who had just been born to them. The lonely man had to dig a grave with his own hands, and lay the bodies of his beloved ones in the dust. At this time, when he was almost distracted with grief, a providential visit from Bishop Selwyn and Mr. Coleridge Patteson in their Mission ship brought him the consolation of true Christian sympathy. "Standing with me," he writes, "beside the grave of mother and child, I weeping aloud on his one hand, and Patteson—afterwards the Martyr Bishop of Nukapu—sobbing silently on the other, the godly Bishop Selwyn poured out his heart to God amidst sobs and tears, during which he laid his hands on my head, and invoked Heaven's richest consolations and blessings on me and my trying labours."

Strengthened by this angel visit from the noble pair of Church of England missionaries, Mr. Paton set to work once more, though day by day he was made to feel that his life hung by a single thread. Constantly the savages threatened him with death; sometimes during the night they made cowardly attempts upon his life. But in some way or other—the stumbling of an assailant, the barking of his trusty dog, the working of superstitious fear in a heathen heart—the danger was always turned aside.

Power of an Empty Revolver

One morning before daybreak, Mr. Paton was wakened by the noise of shots being fired along the beach. He had brought a few native teachers from the Christian island of Aneityum to help him in his work, and one of these men rushed in breathlessly to say that six or seven natives had been shot dead to make provision for a great cannibal feast, and that the murderers were coming to kill Mr. Paton and the Aneityumese for the same purpose.

At once he called all the teachers into the house, locked the door, and barred the window. By and by the tramp of many approaching feet was heard. And all through the morning and the long forenoon the cannibals kept running round the house, whispering to one another, and hovering about the window and the door. But the expected attack was never made. The Tannese knew that Mr. Paton had a fowling-piece and a revolver in the house; they did not know that he had vowed never to use them to destroy human lives. And the fear of these weapons in a white man's hands must have held them back, for towards noon they stole silently away, and held their gruesome feast without the addition of Christian victims.

Amidst scenes like this Mr. Paton went on steadily with his work, teaching all whom he could get to listen, mastering the language, translating parts of the Bible into Tannese, and printing them with a little printing-press that he had got from Scotland. He was greatly cheered at last by the arrival of another missionary, Mr. Johnston, who was accompanied by his wife. But not long after their arrival a painful tragedy befell.

Foiled by a Retriever

It was New Year's night, and the Johnstons had joined Mr. Paton at family worship. Worship over, they retired to their own cabin, which was only a few yards off; but Mr. Johnston came back immediately to inform Mr. Paton that two men with painted faces were standing just outside his window armed with huge clubs.

Going out, Mr. Paton at once confronted these nocturnal visitors, and asked them what they wanted. "Medicine for a sick boy," they replied. He told them to come in and get it, but the agitation they showed, and their evident unwillingness to come into the light of the room, made him suspect that they had some murderous design. He allowed no sign of his thoughts to appear, however, but stepped, along with Mr. Johnston, into the house, followed by the two men; and, keeping a watchful eye on them all the while, quietly prepared the medicine.

When he came forward with it the men, instead of taking it, tightened their grasp upon their killing-stones. But his steady gaze seemed to cow them, and when he sternly ordered them to leave the house they turned away.

At that moment Mr. Johnston stooped down to lift a little kitten of Mr. Paton's that was running out at the door, and instantly one of the savages leaped forward and aimed a blow at the stooping man. Mr. Johnston saw it coming, and in trying to avoid it rolled over and fell prostrate on the floor.

Quick as thought, Mr. Paton sprang in between his friend and the savages, upon which the two men turned on him and raised their stone clubs in the air to strike him down. He was saved by the courage and fidelity of his two dogs. One of them in particular, a little crossbred retriever with terrier's blood in him, showed the utmost boldness, and sprang furiously at the faces of the cannibals. The dog was badly hurt, but the savages were foiled, and at last they took to their heels through the door.

Accustomed to such scenes, Mr. Paton retired to rest, and slept soundly. With the newly arrived missionary it was otherwise. He had received a nervous shock, from which he never recovered; and in three weeks he was dead. Again Mr. Paton had to make a coffin and dig a grave. And then, he says, referring to the heart-broken young widow and himself, "We two alone at sunset laid him to rest close by the Mission House, beside my own dear wife and child."

A Tragedy On Erromanga

Shortly after this a dreadful deed of blood was wrought on Erromanga, where John Williams had been murdered fully twenty years before. The Rev. Mr. Gordon and his wife, Presbyterian missionaries from Nova Scotia, had been settled on the island, and were making some inroads on its heathendom. But the sandalwood traders of the New Hebrides, a very debased set of men in those days, hated Mr. Gordon because he denounced their atrocities and warned the natives against their vices. In revenge they excited the superstitions of the Erromangans by persuading them that a plague of measles and a hurricane, both of which had recently visited the island, were brought about by Mr. Gordon. Thus the sandalwooders were responsible for a calamity which made Erromanga once more a martyr isle, and all but led to a scene of martyrdom on Tanna also.

One day, when Mr. Gordon was hard at work thatching a printing shed, in which he hoped to provide the Erromangans with the Word of God in their own tongue, two men came to him and begged for medicine. At once he left his work and started with them towards the Mission House. As he was stepping over a streamlet that ran across the path his foot slipped, and that moment the two men were upon him with their tomahawks. A terrible blow on the spine laid him on the ground; a second on the neck almost parted his head from his body. Immediately a band of natives, who had been hiding in the surrounding bush, rushed out and danced in frantic joy round the dead missionary.

Meanwhile Mrs. Gordon, hearing the noise, came out of the house, wondering what had happened. The spot where her murdered husband lay was fortunately concealed from her eyes by a clump of trees. One of the natives approached her, and when she asked him what the noise meant, told her that it was only the boys amusing themselves. Then, as she turned to gaze once more in the direction of the shouting, he crept stealthily behind her, drove his tomahawk into her back, and severed her neck with his next blow.

Mr. Paton Threatened

Just after this double murder a sandalwood trader brought a party of Erromangans over to Tanna in his boat. These Erromangans urged the Tannese to kill Mr. Paton as they themselves had killed the Gordons; and though some of the Tanna chiefs refused to have anything to do with the business, the great majority of them began to cry aloud for the missionary's death. Crowds came flocking to the Mission House and shouting in Mr. Paton's hearing, "The men of Erromanga killed Missi Williams long ago, and now they have killed Missi Gordon. Let us kill Missi Paton too, and drive the worship of Jehovah from our land." Another favourite cry of the time, and one that boded ill for this "much enduring" man, whose constant perils, adventures, and escapes recall the story of old Ulysees—was "Our love to the Erromangans! Our love to the Erromangans!"

H.M.S. "Pelorus"

At this juncture, just when Mr. Paton's life from day to day seemed to be hanging by a single hair, two British warships sailed into the harbour. Seeing the state of matters, the Commodore urged Mr. Paton to leave Tanna at once, and offered to convey him either to New Zealand, or to the island of Aneityum, where Christianity had obtained a firm footing. But though grateful for the Commodore's kindness, he firmly declined to leave his post. He knew that if he did so his station would immediately be broken up, and all the labours of the past three or four years would go for nothing. Moreover, in spite of all that had happened, in spite of the fact that so many of the people would willingly have put him to death, he loved those cruel savages with that Christian love which sees the latent possibilities of goodness in the very worst of men. To him a troop of howling cannibals, literally thirsting for his blood, were his "dear benighted Tannese" after all.

It takes a hero to understand a hero. And it may help us to appreciate Mr. Paton's heroism in standing fast at what he felt to be the post of duty, when we find what Bishop Selwyn thought of it after hearing the whole story of the incident from Commodore Seymour's own lips. Describing to a friend how the brave Scotchman had declined to leave Tanna by H.M.S. Pelorus, he added, " And I like him all the better for so doing." The following words in one of his letters show how high he rated Mr. Paton's conduct:—

"Talk of bravery! talk of heroism! The man who leads a forlorn hope is a coward in comparison with him, who, on Tanna, thus alone, without a sustaining look or cheering word from one of his own race, regards it as his duty to hold on in the face of such dangers. We read of the soldier, found after the lapse of ages among the ruins of Herculaneum, who stood firm at his post amid the fiery rain destroying all around him, thus manifesting the rigidity of the discipline amongst those armies of ancient Rome which conquered the world. Mr. Paton was subjected to no such iron law. He might, with honour, when offered to him, have sought a temporary asylum in Auckland, where he would have been heartily received. But he was moved by higher considerations. He chose to remain, and God knows whether at this moment he is in the land of the living."

Attacked in the Bush

After the departure of the men-of-war, constant attempts were made on Mr. Paton's life. Sometimes his empty revolver drove away his cowardly assailant. Frequently he was delivered by his perfect faith in the Divine protection and the confidence with which he asserted that faith. Once, for example, as he was going along a path in the bush, a man sprang suddenly from behind a bread-fruit tree, and swinging his tomahawk on high with a fiendish look, aimed it straight for Mr. Paton's brow. Springing aside, the missionary avoided the blow. And before the ruffian could raise his weapon a second time, he turned upon him and said in a voice in which there was no fear, "If you dare to strike me, my Jehovah God will punish you. He is here to defend me now." At once the man trembled from head to foot, and looked all round to see if this Jehovah God might not be standing near among the shadows.

Another time it seemed that the end had surely come. A conch shell was heard pealing out a warlike summons. Evidently it was a preconcerted signal, for the ominous notes had not died away before there was seen an immense multitude of armed savages advancing at the double down the slopes of a hill some distance off. Abandoning the Mission House, Mr. Paton with his native teachers escaped through the bush to the village of a half-friendly chief some miles away; but it was not long till the savages were hot-foot on their trail.

The Power of Prayer

The fugitives saw them coming, and knew that God alone could save them. "We prayed," says Dr. Paton, "as one can only pray when in the jaws of death." And then a strange thing happened. When about 300 yards off, the pursuers suddenly stood stock-still. The chief with whom he had taken refuge touched Mr. Paton's knee and said, "Missi, Jehovah is hearing!" And to this day Dr. Paton can give no other explanation of what took place. That host of warriors, to whom no opposition could possibly have been offered, hesitated, turned back, and disappeared into the forest.

At length there came what Dr. Paton's brother and editor describes as "the last awful night." Driven from his own station, Mr. Paton had succeeded, after encountering dreadful risks and hardships by sea and land, in joining Mr. and Mrs. Mathieson, who occupied another post of the Mission at the opposite end of Tanna. But soon the cannibals were on his track again, and the crisis came which led to the breaking up for a time of all Christian work on Tanna.

Facing the Cannibals

The Mission House was in a state of siege, and Mr. Paton, worn out with fatigue and constant watching, had fallen into a deep sleep. He was wakened by his faithful dog Clutha pulling at his clothes. Feeling sure that the instincts of the animal had not deceived it, and that even in the dead silence of the night it must have scented some danger, Mr. Paton wakened his companions.

Hardly had he done so when a glare of red light fell into the room. Then dark figures were seen flitting to and fro with blazing torches and making for the adjoining church, which was speedily in flames. Next the savages applied their torches to the reed fence by which the Mission House was connected with the church. And now the inmates knew that in a very few minutes the house also would be on fire, and that outside in the night armed savages would be waiting to strike them down with coward blows if they tried to make their escape.

Then it was that Mr. Paton performed a deed which, if done by a soldier on the field of battle, would be thought worthy of the Victoria Cross. Seizing a little American tomahawk with his right hand, and taking his empty revolver in the left, he issued suddenly from the door before the savages had closed in upon the house. Running towards the burning fence, he attacked that part of it which was still untouched by the fire, cutting it down with his tomahawk in a frenzy of haste, and hurling it back into the flames so that it might no longer serve as a conductor between the church and the house. At first the savages were spell-bound by his boldness, but soon several of them leaped forward with clubs uplifted. Levelling his harmless revolver at them, Mr. Paton dared them to strike him and though they all urged one another to give the first plow, not one of them had the courage to do it.

So they stood facing each other in the lurid glow of the burning church, now flaring up through the midnight like a great torch—the intrepid white man and that band of bloodthirsty cannibals. And then there occurred something which the chief actor in this most dramatic scene has never ceased to attribute to the direct interposition of God. A rushing, roaring sound came out of the south, like the muttering of approaching thunder. Every head was turned instinctively in that direction, for the natives knew by experience that a tornado was about to burst upon them.

Jehovah's Rain

In another moment it fell. Had it come from the north, no power on earth could have saved the Mission House and its inmates; but coming from the quarter exactly opposite, it swept the flames backwards and destroyed every chance of the house taking fire. And on the heels of the loud hurricane there came a lashing torrent of tropical rain, which before long extinguished the fire altogether. With this furious onset of the elements a panic seized the savages. "This is Jehovah's rain," they cried. And in a few moments every one of them had disappeared into the darkness, leaving Mr. Paton free to rejoin Mr. Mathieson and his wife in perfect safety.

That was Mr. Paton's last night on Tanna. Next morning the Blue Bell, a trading vessel, came sailing into the bay, and by it the missionaries were rescued from their now desperate situation and taken to Aneityum. Both Mr. and Mrs. Mathieson died soon after. The strain of their experiences on Tanna had been too great. But in Mr. Paton's case those years of trial and apparent defeat proved but his apprenticeship for the extraordinary work he has accomplished since.

First by his labours on the island of Aniwa, which lies between Tanna and Erromanga. The natives there, though cannibals too, were less violent and brutal than the Tannese. Dr. Paton tells how, in clearing ground to build himself a house on Aniwa, he gathered off that little spot of earth two large baskets of human bones. Pointing to them, he said to an Aniwan chief: "How do then bones come to be here?" "Ah," replied the native, with a shrug worthy of a cynical Frenchman, "we are not Tanna men! We do not eat the bones!


"The tale of Mr. Paton's life in Aniwa is as thrilling as any in the annals of the Missionary Church. But that, as Mr. Kipling would say, is another story, and cannot be told here. Nor can we do more than allude to the romance of Mr. Paton's wanderings through the Australian bush and over the cities of England and Scotland in connexion with the building of the Dayspring, or rather of a succession of Daysprings, for shipwreck was a common thing in those coral-studded seas, and the time came besides when for mission work, as for other work, the ship of sails had to give place to the ship of steam.

And to come back to Tanna again, it can only be said that fruit appeared at length in "that hardest field in Heathendom." Dr. Paton has had the joy of seeing other men enter into his labours, the peculiar joy of giving his own son, the Rev. Frank Paton, to that same island where he toiled in loneliness and tears till driven from its shores by the savages themselves. His patient sufferings no less than his unselfish work helped to bring about at last a relenting of the Tannese heart. His early ploughshare, we might say, driven through the hard soil, opened the way for the hopeful sowers and glad reapers who came in due season.

The author desires to acknowledge his special obligations to the Rev. James Paton, D.D., minister of St. Paul's Church, Glasgow, who is Dr. John G. Paton's brother and the editor of his works, for allowing him to make use of both the Autobiography and The Story of John G. Paton.

From The Romance of Missionary Heroism... by John C. Lambert. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1907.

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