The Missionaries

Norman Lewis


The Missionaries

Norman Lewis


The Missionaries is a searing examination of attempts by North American fundamentalist Christian missionaries to convert indigenous tribes around the globe, and the genocide which so often results. In a distillation of a lifetime’s observation on the ground, Norman Lewis contrasts the self-contained, peaceful traditions of the tribal people he so admires with the shameless violence, the bogus piety, the ruthless double standards and the mercenary greed of the men and women who seek to convert them.

By simply observing the two groups and describing their words and actions, Lewis leaves the reader devastated by man’s capacity for cruelty and with no doubt as to which of the two – missionaries or tribespeople – inhabits the superior culture.

‘... a scathing and ironic indictment of which a Voltaire or a Swift might be proud’ - Sunday Times
‘... compulsive, deeply upsetting and unforgettable’ - Financial Times
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The Missionaries: God against the Indians
ISBN: 978-1906011-52-9
Format: 205pp demi pb
Price: £12.99

Author Biography

Norman Lewis’s early childhood, as recalled in Jackdaw Cake (1985), was spent partly with his Welsh spiritualist parents in Enfield, North London, and partly with his eccentric aunts in Wales. Forgoing a place at university for lack of funds, he used the income from wedding photography and various petty trading to finance travels to Spain, Italy and the Balkans, before being approached by the Colonial Office to spy for them with his camera in Yemen.

He moved to Cuba in 1939, but was recalled for duty in the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War. It was from this that Norman Lewis’s masterpiece, Naples ’44, emerged, a resurrection of his wartime diary only finally published in 1978. Before that came a number of novels and travel books, notably A Dragon Apparent (1951) andGolden Earth (1952), both of which were best sellers in their day. His novel The Volcanoes Above Us, based on personal experiences in Central America, sold six million copies in paperback in Russia and The Honoured Society (1964), a non-fiction study of the Sicilian Mafia, was serialised in six instalments by the New Yorker.

Norman Lewis wrote thirteen novels and thirteen works of non-fiction, mostly travel books, but he regarded his life’s major achievement to be the reaction to an article written by him entitled Genocide in Brazil, published in the Sunday Times in 1968. This led to a change in the Brazilian law relating to the treatment of Indians, and to the formation of Survival International, the influential international organisation which campaigns for the rights of tribal peoples. He later published a very successful book called The Missionaries (1988) which is set amongst the Indians of Central and Latin America.

More recent books included Voices of the Old Sea (1984), Goddess in the Stones: Travels in India (1991), An Empire of the East: Travels in Indonesia (1993), The World the World (1996), which concluded his autobiography, as well as collections of pieces in The Happy Ant Heap (1998) and Voyage by Dhow (2001). With In Sicily (2002) he returned to his much-loved Italy, and in 2003 his last book, A Tomb in Seville, will be published.

Lewis travelled to offbeat parts of the world well into his 90s, returning to the calm of rural Essex where he lived with his third wife. He died in July 2003 at the age of 95. 


Extract from Chapter One

IN 1767 the English navigator Wallis discovered the island of Tahiti. His visit was rapidly followed by those of the French explorer de Bougainville, and Captain James Cook. Between them these men

opened up the Pacific. All three captains were overwhelmed by their reception at the hands of the people of Tahiti, and by the gifts showered upon them. Bougainville renamed Otaheite – as it was then called – New Cythera after the island in Greek legend where Aphrodite had emerged from the sea. When Cook left Tahiti at the end of his second mission he wrote in his journal, ‘I directed my course to the West and we took our final leave of these happy islands and the good people on them.’ Some years later he was to write, ‘It would have been far better for these poor people never to have known us.’

Captain Bligh of the Bounty – that stern judge of men – was if possible more impressed. It had been noted back home that the physique of the people of Tahiti was somewhat superior to those of Europe, and the conjecture was that the breadfruit forming a large part of their diet might have contributed to this fact. Bligh spent five months in Tahiti gathering shoots from the breadfruit tree for transportation to the West Indies in the hope of improving the condition of negro slaves. In Tahiti he has become a kind of folk hero, and the memory of him was that he spent much of his spare time playing with the local children. When he finally sailed he wrote: ‘I left these happy islanders with much distress, for the utmost affection, regard and good fellowship was among us during our stay . . . their good sense and observations joined with the most engaging disposition in the world will ever make them beloved by all who become acquainted with them as friends.’ A few days later the famous mutiny on the Bounty took place, due to the determination of members of his crew not to return to England but to remain and settle on the islands where they had found so much happiness.

The accounts given by the great navigator, and by the lesser sailors and adventurers who followed them, of the civilisation of the South Seas produced a deep and even dangerous effect in Europe. Certain thinkers, above all Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote of the Noble Savage, seemed inclined to argue the opinion that man had not – as has been so commonly preached and accepted – been ‘born in sin’, but in his primeval condition was naturally good, and that this original goodness had been concealed due to subjugation of corrupt societies.

A counter-attack by the religious orthodoxy of the day was inevitable. In 1795 the London Missionary Society was formed, its immediate attention focused upon the Pacific; two years later a convict ship bound for Australia put the first missionaries ashore on Tahiti. They, too, were overwhelmed by the warmth of their welcome and since the Tahitians were clearly disposed to give things away they asked for the Bay of Matavai, where they had landed, to be given to them. The request was instantly granted by the local chief, who had no conception of private property in land and was later disconcerted to learn that he and his people were to be debarred from the area.

The evangelists were a strange assortment, picked by the Society on the score of their probable usefulness to uninstructed savages, and they included a harness-maker, bricklayer, farmer, weaver and a butcher and his wife. None of them had ever left England before and few had left their native villages. It was four years before any of them learned enough of the language to preach a sermon to a puzzled though sympathetic audience. The Tahitians built their houses, fed them, and provided them with servants galore, but after seven years not a convert had been made. Children called upon to line up and repeat over and over again this simple verse in Tahitian did so obligingly and with good grace,

No te iaha e ridi mei ei Jehove ia oe?

For what is Jehova angry with thee?

No te taata ino wou no to’u hamani ino

Because I am evil and do evil.

But another seven years of such attempted indoctrination produced no results, then suddenly the great breakthrough took place.

The device which eventually established the unswerving missionary rule is described in a letter to home by one of the brethren, J. M. Orsmond. ‘All the missionaries were at that time salting pork and distilling spirits . . . Pomare (the local chief) had a large share. He was drunk when I arrived and I never saw him sober.’ Orsmond describes the compact by which Pomare, reduced to an alcoholic, would be backed in a war against the other island chiefs on the understanding that his victory would be followed by enforced conversion. Since Pomare was supplied with firearms to be used against his opponents’ clubs, victory was certain. ‘The whole nation’, Orsmond wrote, ‘was converted in a day.’

There followed a reign of terror. Persistent unbelievers were put to death and a penal code was drawn up by the missionaries and enforced by missionary police in the uniforms of Bow Street Runners. It was declared illegal to adorn oneself with flowers, to sing (other than hymns), to tattoo the body, to surf or to dance. Minor offenders were put in the stocks, but what were seen as major infringements (dancing included) were punished by hard labour on the roads. Within a quarter of a century the process by which the native culture of Tahiti had been extinguished was exported to every corner of the South Pacific, reducing the islanders to the level of the working class of Victorian England.

J. M. Orsmond crops up again on Moorea where he is remembered with anguish until this day. After their mass conversion it was hoped that the Tahitians might be induced to accept the benefits of civilisation by putting them to work growing sugar cane. A Mr Gyles, a missionary who had formerly been a slave overseer in Jamaica, was brought over, along with the necessary mill to set the industry up. ‘Witnessing the cheapness of labour by means of the negroes he thought the natives of these islands might be induced to labour in the same way.’ He was mistaken. The enterprise failed, and Mr Orsmond, believing that ‘a too bountiful nature on Moorea diminishes men’s natural desire to work’, ordered all breadfruit trees to be cut down. By this time the population of Tahiti had been reduced by syphilis, tuberculosis, smallpox and influenza from the 200,000 estimated by Cook to 18,000. After thirty years of missionary rule, only 6,000 remained. Otto Von Kotzebue, leader of a Russian expedition into the Pacific in 1823, long before the decline had reached its terminal phase, wrote: ‘A religion like this which forbids every innocent pleasure and cramps or annihilates every mental power is a libel on the divine founder of Christianity.’ The Tahitians, he said, were by nature ‘gentle, benevolent, open, gay, peaceful and wholly devoid of envy; they rejoiced in each other’s good fortune, and when one received a present, all seemed to be equally gratified’. It grieved him that ‘every pleasure should be punished as a sin among a people whom Nature destined to the most cheerful enjoyment’.

John Davies, one of the pioneer missionaries, wrote a history of the Tahiti Mission which he finished in 1851. It was never published in full, probably because it was considered unpublishable by his superiors in the Society, who spoke of ‘those facts which it would be advisable to expunge altogether’. Only in 1961 were a number of chapters, put together with selections from missionary correspondence, published under the imprint of the Hakluyt Society. Davies wrote frankly, and from his account the missionaries could hardly have claimed to be saints. They were the sons of an age that has become a byword for hypocrisy and secret indulgence. Behind a sternly teetotalitarian façade the senior missionaries, Messrs Scott, Shelley, Hayward and Nott, wrote Orsmond, ran a still. ‘From it the King always drank freely.’ Mr Bicknall, a missionary leader, traded in spirits. Despite the Society’s written instructions to the missionaries to ‘avoid to the utmost every temptation of the Native Women’, several of the weaker brethren defected to set up house with them. Mr Simpson, a royal adviser, was charged with fathering a daughter on the wife of a Tahitian judge, and even John Davies had to face accusations of philandering.

Nor were the possibilities of financial gain overlooked. Missionary police being paid from fines (what remained was divided between the missionaries and the judges) were anxious to secure convictions, if necessary, as Mr Davies says in his History, ‘by placing both the guilty and the suspect in the stocks’. The brethren also benefited from ‘a system of organised tribute to the London Missionary Society’. In all, they seem to have done fairly well for themselves. Coming in most cases to Tahiti as poor men and receiving no financial support from London, they had become not only all-powerful but affluent. Mr Davies died the possessor of flocks, herds, an orchard and a plantation, ‘having’, as a fellow missionary described him, ‘an abundance of wealth’.

Their power base firmly established in Tahiti, the missionaries moved swiftly to the outer islands. They were at first accompanied by the drunken and ferocious Pomare (‘a beastly creature’, Orsmond calls him). The methods employed were as before. A local chieftain would be baptised, crowned king, presented with a portrait of Queen Victoria, introduced to the bottle, and left to the work of conversion. In Raratonga chieftains, who opted to carry on as before, abruptly changed their minds at the approach of the missionary forces. In a matter of days huge numbers of islanders were baptised. Hitherto there had been nothing to compare with the success of the Gospel here. It took days to baptise the 1,500 who had chosen Jehovah. Mr Davies wondered if they had been true converts, admitting that Mr Bourne’s sermon had been in Tahitian, a language the people could not understand. However a party of idolators continued to hold out and one man in ten of the islanders was con- scripted into the missionary police in order to deal with them. A moral code of such strictness was then enforced that a man walking with his arm round a woman at night was compelled to carry a lantern in his free hand. On the island Raiatea a man who forecast the weather by studying the behaviour of fish was treated as a witch-doctor, and put to death.

In this campaign conducted by Pomare and the missionaries it is clear that a process of mutual brutalisation had gone on. The missionaries had succeeded in infusing Pomare with a wholly un-Tahitian lust for power, and stupefying him with spirits. But having at first expressed their horror at his many human sacrifices, they were in the end able to overlook these. When he died of an apoplectic fit, John Davies wrote: ‘December 7th, 1821 King Pomare departed this life to the great loss of the Islands in general, and the keen regret of the missionaries . . . whose steady friend he had been for many years.’

By 1850 the conquest of the Pacific was complete. With the French and British’s formal annexation of the islands, references ceased to what The Times had called the missionary protectorate. The colonial officials of both countries who took over were indulgent, and with the development of immunity against imported disease, island populations were on the increase. Breadfruit trees, cut down ‘to incite the people to industry by reducing the spontaneous production of the earth’, sprang up again everywhere. All-enveloping European clothes, both ridiculous and in- sanitary in the tropics, would soon be thrown away, and bodies once more exposed to the sun. Peace had returned at last after the wars of religion.

Nevertheless the islanders had changed and would never return to what they had been. Once the lives of the Polynesian and Melanesian people had been intertwined with the processes of creation. They seemed under compulsion to decorate everything, from pieces of odd-shaped driftwood, which they twisted into human and animal shapes and inlaid with mother of pearl, to the enormously tall prows of their canoes into which they carved such intricate designs. But now the mysterious com- pulsion of art had left them. Of the innumerable masterpieces of carving turned out by the Pacific islanders, only a few examples had escaped the general destruction to become museum pieces. The desire to produce beautiful things has gone – possibly through the long association, trans- mitted by the missionary teachings, of beauty with evil. Island dances, reduced to grass-skirts and swaying hips, are for tourist consumption, and the islanders’ songs seem lugubrious as if they have never freed themselves of the influence of the gloomy hymn-chanting in which they are based.

Missionary effort slackened off by the end of the last century, because for a while the movement had run out of feasible objectives. In the Pacific, hundreds of islands had been reached and overrun with such ease, because they had not only become accessible, but because when reached there were no natural obstacles by way of mountains and forests to delay occupation. Assuming no resistance was encountered, a native ‘teacher’ supported by a half dozen missionary police could take over almost any island in a week. Suddenly the Pacific had become full of the whalers of all nations, and nothing was easier than to take a passage on one of these promising a harvest of souls.

The Pacific operation at an end, there was – at least by comparison – nowhere left to go. Much of the interior of Black Africa remained closed except to the intrepid explorers. In South-East Asia three-quarters of the vast islands of Borneo and New Guinea remained to be explored. South America contained an area larger than Europe covered by Amazonian forests and swamps. Such regions were known to be peopled by numerous tribes, many of which no one had even set eyes on. There were no maps. In South America the evangelists, who had persecuted Catholics in the Pacific, were not made welcome by the Catholic authorities. In South-East Asia, where they faced Muslim competition, whatever work could be done remained slight and peripheral.